It’s the end of a long day of hunting in Africa. Ted Williams and John Underwood, his friend and writing collaborator, are in their tent trying to get to sleep, the faint light of a lantern casting everything in shadows.
Underwood, bone tired, is talking to Williams with his eyes closed when the famed ballplayer, who has just finished his first year as the Washington Senators’ manager, starts talking about one of his players - specifically his batting stroke and the modifications that might be made to it.
“So I’m listening to him,” Underwood recalls, “and all of a sudden I can hear him grunting. And I open my eyes, and he’s up in the tent, and he’s swinging an imaginary bat at an imaginary ball. I don’t know how many swings he made, probably six or seven, but he’s just expounding on his science of hitting. … I can’t remember which player it was. I know he tried to get [Frank] Howard to get his hips into the ball.”
Williams never stopped thinking about hitting, about the elusive geometry of applying bat to ball — even when he was in the other side of the Atlantic, in the heart of the Zambian wilderness. And baseball folks never have stopped thinking about him, about the wondrous things he could do with a tapered slab of white ash.
In his 19 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, “Teddy Ballgame” won six batting titles, hit 521 home runs, drew 2,021 deferential walks — and would have added to those totals considerably if he hadn’t spent five years in the military (three during World War II and two in Korea, where he nearly lost his life when the plane he was piloting was hit by enemy fire).
None of his exploits inspires quite as much awe, though, as his .406 average in 1941. No major leaguer, of course, has hit .400 since. The closest anyone has come in a full season is George Brett’s .390 mark for Kansas City in 1980 (though San Diego’s Tony Gwynn was at .394 in August 1994 when the players went on strike, not to return until the following spring).
Indeed, it was 70 years ago Wednesday that Williams, in storybook fashion, capped his season for the ages by refusing to sit out a doubleheader on the final day and going 6-for-8 against the Philadelphia A’s. This raised his average from a precarious .39955 to .406 … and may very well make him the last .400 hitter.
It never ceased to surprise Williams that he occupied this particular place in history. After all, in 1941, there was no reason to think the feat would never be accomplished again. The .400 mark, though lofty, had been reached by several hitters in the previous few decades, including Bill Terry (.401 in 1930), Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb. Williams himself told Underwood, “I always thought I would do it again. I didn’t think this was going to be a milestone like it’s certainly become.”
.406 stands test of time
Besides, he was just 23 at the end of that season. He had his whole magnificent career ahead of him. But only once after that did he flirt with .400 — when, at the improbable age of 38 in 1957, he wound up at .388, five hits short.
No, his .406 is looking more and more like it might be eternal. It even survived the steroid era - and the early years of baseball in Colorado, where Andres Galarraga went from being a .243 hitter with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 to being a .370 colossus with the Rockies in ‘93. Granted, Williams played in the years before integration - not to mention closers - but he also played when there were 16 teams, not the watered-down 30 we have today. (It also bears mentioning that there was a primacy to baseball back then that doesn’t exist today. Simply put, it was the No. 1 sport, the cool sport, and attracted most of the best athletes.)
Underwood, a former Sports Illustrated writer, is hoping there’s still enough nostalgia for Williams to get a movie made about him - for which he’ll supply the screenplay. His timing would seem to be advantageous. A play about Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, recently ran on Broadway, and the baseball film “Moneyball” just had a big first weekend in theaters. Sports aren’t easily dramatized, especially if the story is familiar; but if you can pull it off, the result can be powerful — not to mention profitable.
A movie in the making?
So Underwood has written a treatment, and erstwhile Washington publicist Fred Sternburg, who now has his own firm outside Denver, is shopping it around. Sternburg got to know Underwood a couple of years ago while promoting HBO’s documentary on Williams and talked him into becoming involved in a film project. Sternburg has much admiration for the Red Sox great. It was passed down to him by his father, who grew up in the Boston area and gifted him with a copy of “My Turn at Bat,” the bestselling autobiography Williams did with Underwood.
“John told me he had a producer [for a Williams flick] one time, but the money fell through,” says Steinburg.
So they decided to give it another shot. It would be no Disney movie, that’s for sure. Williams, for all his heroics, had a bumpy ride in baseball — and in life, really. The quintessential loner, he warred with sportswriters, fans, wives, anybody who crossed him.
One time, Underwood found himself on the wrong side of Williams’ wrath when he made the “mistake” of grabbing a check in a restaurant. He already had sensed that morning that something might be wrong. “Ted’s eyes would get small and round when he was angered about something,” he says. “And his mandibles would jump. He’d be sitting there gnashing his teeth. He didn’t say anything negative [at first], but as we talked, it was almost like me doing all the talking.”
Then Underwood reached for the tab, and “Ted grabbed it out of my hand and said, ‘Don’t be a big shot.’ And with that, he loosed a torrent of curse words. He didn’t curse me, he just cursed openly and loudly. He was very good at cursing. He could find five ways to use ‘syphilitic.’ And I sat there and was stunned.
The writer and the Last .400 Hitter made up, though, and joined forces on a series of books, “My Turn at Bat” being followed by “The Science of Hitting,” “Ted Williams, Fishing the Big Three: Tarpon, Bonefish, Atlantic Salmon” and Underwood’s memoir, “It’s Only Me: The Ted Williams We Hardly Knew.”
Many sides to study
“There was so much to Williams’ life that you could certainly examine productively, even if you didn’t necessarily admire the whole thing,” he says.
And who better to tell the story than Underwood, who angled for game fish in the Florida Keys with him, hunted for sable antelope in Africa with him, sat in a duck blind in Arkansas with him and exchanged forehands on the tennis court with him?
About that duck blind …
“I remember being amazed that he could sit there in 38-degree temperature by the hour,” Underwood says - just like he used to wait, with superhuman patience, for his pitch. “One day, we hadn’t seen a duck all day, it was coming close to the end of the day, and sure enough a flock came over, way up high. I raised my shotgun and fired about 20 yards ahead, thinking it would get one of the ducks when they flew into it. And sure enough, I hit one, and it came down.
“Ted said, ‘I don’t believe it. I’m gonna get that one.’ And he came out of the blind — we had water up to our knees - and got the duck and brought it back. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I knew it. Look, there’s not a scar on him. He saw those shotgun pellets way up there, he couldn’t believe it, and he had a heart attack.’ “
He was competitive at everything he did, Ted Williams was. And no matter what life gave him, he wanted more. How else do you think you hit .406?
‘Lonely and alone’
You can imagine his disappointment when he never won a World Series (and, slowed by an unpublicized injury, underperformed in the only one he played in). And you imagine how torn up Underwood was to see Williams, after his death, turned into a punch line when his son, John Henry, decided to have him cryogenically frozen.
Near the end, Underwood talked to Williams on the phone. “He had a nurse there full-time,” he says, “and she said he was sleeping, but she insisted that she wake him because he needed to have some encouragement. I’ll never forget how distant his voice sounded, how lonely and alone it sounded. It didn’t have any of the [usual] bristle. And he said to me — words to this effect — ‘John, if I had to live this last year of my life over again, and could get out of it by trading all the other years, I’d trade all the other years.’ That’s how bad it was for him.”
In some ways, a Ted Williams movie already has been made. Robert Redford’s 1984 film, “The Natural,” paid more than token homage to Williams. Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, wore the No. 9 - Ted’s number. He also hit third like Ted and batted left-handed like Ted. It was no coincidence.
“Redford was a big Ted Williams fan,” Underwood says. “He had all kinds of [Williams-related] things in the movie. In the end, he knocks out the [stadium] lights with a home run. Well, Ted knocked the [loudspeaker at Shibe Park] out when he got his last hit for .406. [The ball bounced back on the field, and Williams settled for a double.] Hobbs wanted to be the greatest player there ever was. Well, what Ted said in the autobiography I did on him was: ‘When I walk down the street, I want people to say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”
Redford even wanted Williams to be an on-set consultant for the movie, according to Underwood, and Ted was receptive to the idea. But when shooting was about to begin, “Ted called him back from the Miramichi River [in Canada] and said, ‘The fishing’s too good. I can’t do that now.’ That’s the way Ted thought. He’d rather be fishing than helping Robert Redford make a movie.”
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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